By Rick Lawrence
(This is an edited excerpt from my book Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry.)
I was invited to have lunch with six youth pastors who’d been singled out by a seminary professor as men and women who’d managed to build long-term thriving youth ministries. For two hours we talked about the centrality of Jesus as a ministry focus. It was not a light conversation—the deeper we dove, the more dissonant the atmosphere became.
Finally, one of the youth pastors looked at me with sad-but-determined eyes and said, “I don’t think kids walking into our church get to see what it looks like to live as Christians. Most are just there to be with their friends. Our committed Christian kids don’t like it—they can’t really worship because it’s not a worshipful environment. We have attenders, but no community.”
Another spoke up, obviously feeling the freedom to finally drag into the light what he’d been too afraid to say. “The word ‘Christian’ has taken on alternate meanings in today’s culture—we need to throw it out,” he said. “We need to debunk how [teenagers] have been brought up to see Jesus, and what worship is all about. If we could just shut down for a year…”
The first speaker jumped in and proclaimed, “I’d love to shut down for a year! Sometimes we’re so comforting and so kind and so welcoming we miss the hard edges of Jesus.” Then another spoke up: “I spent some time this year leading a mission trip overseas—something happened inside of me during that time. When I came back, I told my kids, ‘I’m sick of being a Christian—I’m ready to become a Christ-follower.’ For the kids in my church, there’s nothing I’ve ever said that resonated more with them, or longer. These are kids who’ve grown up in the church, and they want more.”
Around our little circle heads nodded and eyes flashed. These were all highly educated, trench-tested veteran youth pastors who’d each been at their churches for many years, and had hundreds of kids in their ministries. They were clearly mature in their faith and admired for their leadership skills. There was no embittered sense of burnout in them—quite the contrary, actually. They just didn’t like what their ministries had become. And they knew that a few little tweaks or the latest tips and techniques would not get the job done. Half of them were openly hungering to know Jesus more deeply, wishing they could implode their conventional “understand and apply” ministries without losing their jobs.
Jesus Centered Ministry is Not About The Shoulds
It’s tempting to simply convince the young people and adults we serve to leave behind “Christian” and begin anew as “Christ-followers”—but, of course, we can’t “should” people into an all-in relationship with Jesus, any more than I “shoulded” my wife into marrying me. For true intimacy to grow in any relationship we have to be captured and consumed by our lover’s essence.
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. Boston College Philosophy professor and C.S. Lewis scholar Dr. Peter Kreeft once told his students:
“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 lightening…. 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.”
The Enlightenment kicked off a common understanding about rational thought that has become an entrenched given in our culture—the most important ingredient in any recipe for 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. 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.
From Mastering Knowledge to Romance
The movement from “mastering knowledge” and acting on that knowledge to something that looks and sounds more like a growing romance that “ruins” the lover for the Beloved is at the core of the Jesus-centered ministry shift. And to make this shift, we’ll need to do something that couples who’ve been married a long time, and have grown dull to one another’s beauty, must do: we must remember the Jesus we didn’t know we’d forgotten.
The simple reason a few uneducated and often clueless 1st-century men and women could plant something that not only changed the world, but continues to occupy its orbital center, is because their “movement” was attached to the force of the person of Jesus. They were not the greatest tips-and-techniques people to ever walk the earth. They were not skilled at strategy or structure. But they were ruined for Jesus, and the momentum of that attachment changed everything they touched.
Utilize experienced ministry coaches to help you keep that laser-focus on Jesus as you lead and minister. It’s free to chat with Vibrant Faith Coaching Director Jim Ladoux for 30-minutes about your coaching needs and to learn more about Vibrant Faith’s coaching options.
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith. He’s the general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of 40 books, including The Jesus-Centered Life and the new daily devotional Jesus-Centered Daily.