Youth Ministry's Tendency Toward Legalism
Editors' Note: Everyone has an opinion about youth ministry. Parents, pastors, and the youth themselves have expectations and demands that don't always overlap. But the rash of dire statistics about the ineffectiveness of youth ministry has prompted rethinking in these ranks. So we devote one day per week this month to exploring several issues in youth ministry, including its history, problems, and biblical mandate. The Gospel Coalition thanks Cameron Cole and the leadership team of Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry for their help in compiling this series. Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, will host their 2012 conference from August 9 to 11. Speakers Ray Ortlund, Timothy George, and Mary Willson will expound on the conference theme, "Adopted: The Beauty of Grace."
I have walked for ten years with Allen, who was my closest Christian friend in high school. During our senior year we were "on fire" for God and set out to walk with Christ throughout college. After our freshman year, I watched my poor friend weep often about why he did not experience Christ in a real way. His youth ministry had sold him a message that faithful obedience before God would yield an experiential intimacy and spiritual euphoria, which he failed to encounter. In spite of tireless religious striving, Allen felt as if his pursuits resulted in a tumbling spiral into a deep, dark void.
Not surprisingly, Allen became disenchanted with Christianity and the church. Only after ten years of courageous waiting and honest reflection has he been able to re-engage church without resentment and wounding. He synopsizes his youth ministry's message with a story, which his youth pastor used to tell kids. The story basically involved a sad man, sitting in a corner, disappointed and hurt by his children, who he wished would come pay attention to him. The youth pastor explained that the man in the corner was Jesus, who remained displeased with his children when they failed to spend time with him or when we disobeyed his commands. In sum, we are a disappointment to God unless we perform spiritually.
Based on my experience in youth ministry, if I had to identify the greatest theological problem in the field, it would be the absence of the gospel in teaching on sanctification. Most youth ministries faithfully preach justification by faith in Christ alone. In fact, I may even credit youth ministers with being more faithful than senior pastors in helping their flock understand Christianity as saving relationship rather than cultural religion. However, in the space of sanctification, youth ministry often focuses on emotional exhortation and moral performance. A legalistic tone frequently characterizes the theology of sanctification in youth ministry.
So why does youth ministry tend to be legalistic?
1. We want to see results.
Mark Upton, a former youth worker and current pastor at Hope Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, offered these wise words to me when I started youth ministry: "If anyone asks you about your ministry, tell them you will let them know in ten years." Like any ministry profession, youth pastors want to see changed lives. At the same time, youth pastors need to view themselves as sowers, planting gospel seeds for harvest down the road. (I know this personally as in times of despair I just want to see the kids "do something" to affirm that my ministry has worth.) Wanting validation for their tireless labor, youth ministers occasionally focus on behavior modification as a means of providing tangible proof of the efficacy of their ministry. A kid carrying his or her Bible to school, signing a chastity pledge, or sporting a WWJD bracelet may appear like signs of spiritual progress---the fruit of ministry labor for a youth pastor---but if these actions come out of a student misunderstanding Christianity as a code of behavior rather than heart transformation through the Holy Spirit, then they do not necessarily reflect lasting life change.
2. Kids are as destructive as nuclear warheads.
All kidding aside, kids have skewed filters for risk management and make destructive decisions. Very few youth pastors go through a year without the death of a teenager in the community where they serve. Many youth pastors preach moralism over the gospel in order to protect students from self-destruction. Unfortunately, law-driven ministry often yields the opposite of its intention; law and pressure often inflame rebellion.
3. Parents want moral children.
A gospel-centered youth pastor in South Carolina once told me that parents were his biggest opponents to him fully preaching the gospel. After several years of teaching the radical grace of the gospel, parents complained about a lack of concentration on drinking, sexual abstinence, obedience to parents, and "being nice." They viewed the message of grace as antinomian and as a license for kids to pursue hedonism. Parents rightly want moral children, as do youth pastors. Sometimes, families view the church exclusively as a vehicle for moral education, rather than spiritually forming them in Christ, and put pressure on youth and senior pastors to moralize their children. Many parents view the law alone as the catalyst for holy living, rather than law and grace, and want the youth ministry to embrace this same theology.
4. Many pastors are young in their faith and theology.
When I first started leading Bible studies as a volunteer, my messages usually included a reminder that we needed Jesus for salvation and then a list of moral directives. Over time, as I started to grow in scriptural and theological knowledge, I started to see the gospel of grace and the Holy Spirit as the drivers of sanctification. Tremendous mentoring from all of the pastors at my church and their encouraging and funding my seminary classes played the most influential role in this maturation.
Many youth ministers are young, both in age and in their faith. Given all of the other responsibilities that adult pastors must juggle, nurturing the theological and spiritual development of the youth pastor can be overlooked. Furthermore, churches often view the youth department as entertainment and relationships but not a serious teaching ministry. If churches fail to take seriously the theological development of their youth pastor and to view youth ministry as a teaching and discipleship ministry above all things, then the message likely will lack biblical or doctrinal depth and contain a law-driven message.
Also in the series on youth ministry: