The Gospel and The Bear Trap

There is a danger in youth ministry, that can grab you and sink you work and your passion and all the while let you think you’re doing a good job. This pitfall is the biggest, deepest, and most carefully concealed trap you could ever fall into with while teaching young people, and it’s so deceptive because it entirely consists of telling them the right thing to do. “Young People, read your bible more” you say, and then waltz headfirst into a trap so big a mammoth could have flooded it and used it for a bath. In my not considerable experience I’ve seen this happen pretty much constantly and from a wide range of people, at least one of whom has been me.

What this pitfall consists of is you standing up at the front (or sitting down in a circle, or sitting down on a stage, or whatever carefully thought through youth appropriate way you’ve decided on) and saying “this is how you should live” and leaving it at that. That’s wrong, and it’s wrong because it doesn’t start and end with “this is what Christ has done”. If you’ve ever done that then instead of teaching the gospel, you’ve taught legalism and if you’ve done that; congratulations! You’ve just failed at being a youth minister. The good news is, well, the good news, so you’re forgiven, and God will use your failures to glorify His name, because that’s how the good news works.

Now, you might be thinking at this stage, “wow, I’m glad I haven’t done that” but you have, and to make sure you realise you have here’s an example of how you’ve taught your young people legalism. An example that’ll worry you greatly because it sounds so much like something you’ve done you’re not sure I haven’t just hacked into your computer and pulled out one of your old session plans and copied and pasted. Let’s say you’re teaching a bunch of Christian young people about alcohol. Your session plan might look something like this:

  • Young people turn up / ice-breaker. (10 minutes)
  • Activity to introduce the topic (which might well have something to do with the topic) (10 minutes)
  • What does the world say about alcohol? Show clips and give out magazine articles, discuss in groups and feedback. (15 minutes)
  • What does the word say about alcohol? Give out bibles, show up list of bible verses that mention alcohol, look up and discuss in groups, feedback. (15 minutes)
  • How should we live as Christians? Talk from front in which essentially you explain that alcohol is a good thing in moderation but drunkness is bad, so don’t get drunk. (10 minutes)
  • Pray and go home

You see, you have done that at some point haven’t you? And you might think right now, yes, I have, but that’s not what you were talking about was it? Yes, it is, read the first paragraph again if you want to check, but an easier way of checking would be to ask this, is there any gospel in that whatsoever? Is that actually good news? Because what that sounds like is bad news. That’s teaching a list of things you should obey and do, and humans and obeying go together about as much and as well as outdoor swimming pools and Siberia1.

If you were to teach that session, here’s the three responses you’ll get from your young people. If they’re solid Christian teenagers then hopefully they’ll take that and apply the gospel to it, they’ll trust that when God’s word says it’s true then it’s true, they’ll believe on some level they’ve died to sin and the law and are slaves to righteousness. They’ll follow God by faith. If this is their regular model of teaching though, they soon won’t do that. If they’re not rooted firmly, they’ll respond in one of the other two ways, they’ll either feel superior because they feel they can keep the rules that you’ve given or they’ll feel horrendously guilty because they know they can’t keep the rules. So you’re left with either arrogant hypocrites or guilty slaves and neither of them can be saved because you didn’t tell them the gospel.

The way of the gospel is this: Christ died and in doing so did it all for you. You’re forgiven, redeemed, saved, and brought out of the slavery and curse of the law. That’s how you’re saved, and that’s how you carry on as a Christian. You don’t start with the good news of being saved by grace and then carry on being good by obeying the law and carrying out the rules. Why should you submit again to the slavery of the law? You grow as a Christian, you’re sanctified, by the good news of grace and by being free from slavery to the law. And that’s what we have to teach as well, if we don’t we may as well emasculate ourselves (Gal 5:11-12).

If you taught about alcohol from the gospel, this is how at least an aspect of it would look.

  • Young people turn up / ice-breaker (10 minutes)
  • Activity to introduce the topic (which might well have something to do with the topic) (10 minutes)
  • A segment that teaches us that part of the problem with alcohol is that while it is there for the gladdening of your heart it’s become the centre of the heart for many people and so enslaves them. It also serves to cover up our needs, fears, and self-loathing.
  • How does Jesus deal with this problem? Talk from the front about how Jesus has taken us out of slavery to sin, which means that no sin can have rule over us. You’re not a slave anymore because Christ has freed you and so you can enjoy alcohol as something that does gladden your heart. Or Talk about how God loves us because of Jesus not us, and so provides for our needs, takes care of our fears, and sees us as wonderful.

That, is good news, and because it takes us to what Jesus did it actually has the power to change people. Which is hardly any surprise, Jesus and His gospel is far greater and a far better motivator than us telling people to do things. Yet, we forget it time and time again. Which is why the gospel is even better news, because we’re permanently forgiven for doing such a terrible thing.

1 One does actually exist, though if you read about it, it shows what an odd, alien idea this is.