Teenagers are Desperate for Good News

One reason youth ministry is flatlining is crappy theology.

Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute, was recently interviewed by Relevant Magazine about the present reality that youth ministry presents a faith students easily walk away from in college. She was asked, “Do you think there are any misunderstandings or misconceptions that contribute to young adults leaving the church?”

Her response:

The students involved in our research definitely tended to view the Gospel as a list of dos and do-nots, a list of behaviors. We asked our students when they were college juniors, “How would you define what it really means to be a Christian?” and one out of three—and these were all youth group students—didn’t mention Jesus Christ in their answer; they mentioned behaviors.

Source

Allow me to translate that. Students are learning really crappy theology from their culture, their parents, and their churches.

Is your Gospel even Good News?

Here’s what I encounter when I talk to students in our ministry and even random students I talk to out on the street. They are desperate for Good News. They are looking for Good News. In their honest moments they are desperately searching for Good News. (From Jesus, Buddha, or Katy Perry)

Their lives need Good News. Somewhere. Somehow. In some fashion… they are hard-wired for and looking for Good News. Why? Because their lives are surrounded by bad news. They need a Jesus who is real, who can help them, or their life isn’t going to get any better.

If God doesn’t show up they are in trouble.

And what do they get at a church? Not much. A 30 minute pep talk, some laughs, and some songs. Or, at best– a Christian version of Dr. Phil with an invitation to talk to someone after church.

But a God who meets them where they are at? Or people who are willing to intervene? Nope. And forget about delivering anything that is actual Good News in their lives.

I meet students who are struggling with stuff like this:

  • Have hurts I can’t talk to my mom about.
  • Hurts caused by a mom and dad who love themselves more than they love me.
  • Does anyone love me? Am I even worth loving?
  • Why isn’t my dad around?
  • Who the heck am I? What am I going to do with my life?
  • Sex is like a big rock rolling me over. I am so confused and hurt about sex.
  • I’m stuck in the same problems my parents are, can I break the cycle?
  • My family is late on the rent again. We can’t pay our bills and I feel like a big burdon on my parents.
  • I have big dreams but no one can help me get there.
  • I’m stuck in drug and alcohol abuse and I can’t talk  to an adult about it.
  • I’ve been molested by someone in my family and I can’t talk to anyone about it.

These aren’t rarities. These are just below the surface for a majority of students I interact with. And the churches answer? Come to church. Listen to a message. Attend a Bible study.

Is there any doubt why 95% of teenagers opt-out of that? They are saying, “I need Good News. I need Jesus to be real because I have no other options.” And the churches solution for everything is prayer, Bible study, and attending worship services?

Really?

That’s not Good News. That’s Good Behavior. 

It’s inadequate. It’s a failure. And it’s certainly not the Jesus they encounter when they read the Bible. You know–  the Jesus who was so desperate to help them that He gave His life for them. They want that Jesus and when He doesn’t show up at their church…

They are leaving and I can’t blame them. 

Teenagers desperately need a roaring lion Jesus who will come into their lives, protect them, and help them figure stuff out. They will give anything to a God big enough to do that. Instead they are presented with a smiling, carefree, half-empty suburban-friendly Jesus like substance which cares more about their surfacey behavior than the condition of their heart.

It’s crappy theology. No pastor would admit to teaching it. But that’s what students are learning.

And we arrogantly say we don’t need radical change? Hmph.

Flatliners logic.

Students are trying everything they can to find Good News! They need Jesus to help them with their real, physical problems. 

Will your ministry be the one who steps up, gets messy, and points them to the messy, grimmy, grace-covered Good News of Jesus Christ that touches not just their soul but the sole of their feet?

You want to flip the world upside down? Become Good News to a teenager.

I spit this game 7 days per week. The easiest way you can support my blog is to subscribe via RSS or sign up for my email updatesIt’s real easy. Thanks for your support. 


23 thoughts on “Teenagers are Desperate for Good News

  1. This pairs up with something interesting that happened in our HS Sunday School class yesterday. I asked students to complete the sentence “The purpose of the Church is to:” and their group answer was, “Help people.” I asked why, and they said, “there are a lot of needs in the community.” While missions are a crucial part of the gospel of Christ, I was a little surprised that I didn’t get an answer that included Jesus. I was taken aback by it, and it’s definitely going to impact how I teach. It seems that there’s a disconnect between mission and the reason behind the mission.

  2. Adam, Gosh this is such a well written post. Thanks for the challenge. I actually stopped while I was reading and thought about how I am guilty at times of lapsing into legalism and morality (do’s and dont’s) as I lead my own children, my students, and even as I shape curriculum. Thanks for a powerful reminder delivered very effectively.

  3. Great post Adam! Reading this made me think back to the Sticky Gospel chapter of Sticky Faith Youth Worker Edition. One sentence in particular stood out to me, “Our job, then, is to help them learn to trust God and create the kind of environment in which they are able to explore faith and trust while practicing their freedom to respond in love.”

    It has been so helpful for me to think of teaching the gospel in terms of continuing to trust Christ with everything. Trust is all about relationship with God, not about doing things. I think some radical things would happen if we as youth leaders stopped worrying so much about certain behaviors, and instead invested all our energy into helping teens trust Christ.

  4. Dude…I don’t think I have ever met somebody I simultaneously agree and disagree with so often, and this post did it again! :)

    1) The two types of youth groups you describe (one that consists of a few songs and a lightweight lesson and one that consists of real life conversations that actually matter), don’t have to be mutually exclusive!

    2) it is unfair to label folks who don’t think we need radical change arrogant. In fact, it could be argued that we all see the need for “better results” (not sure that’s the best way to phrase it), but simply differ in how we get there…and how quickly we try. Would the youth ministry landscape be better if everybody tried to force radical change into their contexts only to be shut down because the powers-that-be aren’t ready? You and I may have different answers to that scenario.

    3) Is it bad theology? Maybe. But how many of us really have a theology of Law and works? I wonder if it is one of two things: 1) bad methodology…we simply haven’t figured out how to make our ministries reflect our theology and, 2) laziness….it’s easier to try to keep kids spiritually “in line” with a list of rules and sin-management techniques than it is to truly share life with them. Of course, if what we practice is, in essence, our theology…then we are guilty as charged.

    4) I believe radical change can happen in ways that don’t completely overturn the apple cart. If you were to visit Saddleback on a typical weekend, or visit one of our small groups you would be appalled at what you see. We play games, we have short lessons, we even sing songs. And…we are cranking up our focus on the radical message of Jesus Christ, increasing our biblical literacy, figuring out Missional living, and challenging our leaders to be model incarnational ministry like never before. Pretty radical stuff.

    You make me smile, you make me grumble, and you make me think….thanks!

    KJ

  5. I’ve yet to read the comments (and I’m looking forward to it, but here’s my first blush response)
    The focus on teaching, whether it be good theology or good behavior is missing the point. Kids (and their parents actually) want to live the good news, not just learn about it. They want to live in the way of Jesus, not simply be doctrinal regurgitators.(I’m trademarking that word right now:) 

    So I agree with you that when a youth leader lacks the theological framework that provides insight into what’s actually happening in the programs, their posture as a leader, their sermons and their relationships it leads to a myopic view in which they can only recreate what they’ve done in the past with a patch work of activities and slogans that look like good news, but have no life to them what-so-ever.   Without a theological emobodiment of any sort of good news redemption gets left behind for destruction.  And though in the short term there might be stories of raised hands and decisions, the theological youth pastor would ask… “What are we saving them to?

    Decisions don’t impress me.  Communities who share life together on mission and invite teens (and families) to join them do.

    Engagement is what look for. Decisions is what we settle for.

    This may be my favorite youth ministry blog post so far this year.
    Thanks Adam!

    now on to reading the comments

  6. Its sad. I think that it’s not only spoken theology that sucks, but as Kenda Dean acknowledges in her book “almost christian” its crappy theology being lived out…. so those preaching the right theology aren’t necessarily living that “radical” costly theology out.

    in the past months I’ve interviewed at a ton of churches, along with a handful full of friends also interviewing, and the one thing that has sadly stood out would be the amount of Churches who are buying into “universalism” and/or the idea that Jesus is not the ONLY way he’s just ONE OF the ways… alongside finding out that many big christian leaders (not refferring to Rob Bell), but “youth min” guru’s, and entire youth min organizations or the leaders leading them, buy into this theology (I almost worked for one until they told me their what they said “behind the scenes” stance)… of jesus not being the only way, which i believe completly discredits Jesus, and the power of him, and completely confuses the kids who are looking for something great all powerful and all knowing and when they are told Jesus is not THE “roaring lion” (which is crap, cause he is) they think why would i wanna follow someone who is only one of the lions and he’s not even the head lion? my family lives in Massachusetts and the Unitarian churches seem to be taking over, and when they do they’re slowly but steadily shrinking in population i think because they have very little ground to stand on and very little point to stand for…

    1. What a great quote: “I think that it’s not only spoken theology that sucks, but as Kenda Dean
      acknowledges in her book “almost christian” its crappy theology being
      lived out.” Theology drives methodology. There’s no way around it. Not believing in and teaching grace means we won’t deal with students in grace or live in such a way that resembles it.
      BTW, universalism has absolutely nothing to offer a kid or person who is wrestling with deep guilt and shame. Offers no real, substantive redemption. You’ve got the magic bullet in the Gospel!!! Thanks be to God.

  7. Adam, I love the passion and agree with the frustration.  Clearly these kids need Jesus, not a watered down “moralistic therapeutic deism” Smith and Dean write about.  So do I, for that matter.  But what do you want?  I mean, we agree on what it isn’t.  But what IS it that sets kids free?  Clearly the Gospel is the good news that Jesus came for us on purpose, lived a sin-free life, died a voluntary death to pay for our sins, and rose again to set people free.  I’m just not convinced that it’s bad “theology” that is alienating kids.  Your description is more of a church that doesn’t believe it’s own theology, isn’t living out what it teaches, and is settling for a cut rate version.  

    But I don’t know anyone who believes that attending a Bible study/prayer/worship service is the answer in and of itself. (“And the churches solution for everything is prayer, Bible study, and attending worship services.”)  Isn’t it more a call to us, as leaders, to live a life that obeys Christ first, to invite others to live it with us, and allow students to experience Jesus in that life?  I mean, I know theology is behind it at a level.  But it’s more about us than our theological systems.  Jesus taught perfect theology, and people ditched Him by the hundreds.  

    I don’t know.  I’m not railing on you at all.  I hope it doesn’t sound that way.  I’m equally frustrated.  I wonder at times if our ministries are simply “too effective” at drawing kids, and we expect a higher percentage of them to actually follow Jesus than is possible.  I know, I know, that’s a touchy subject.  I’m interested as you continue to work this out.  Keep writing, I’ll keep reading, we’ll both keep praying.  We just won’t go to any more Bible studies or worship services.

    Thanks man!

    1. Your comment made me wonder if we’re listening to our students. Are we asking them… “Is this Good News to you?” 

      I have to tell you… when I was a high school student I needed Good News, was looking for it, went to church, hung out with church people. And it was YEARS (my 11th grade year) before someone really helped me understand how Jesus was GOOD NEWS for me. 

      We won’t know what students are actually getting out of our ministries until we ask them. A big part of discovering this stuff in me has been evaluating former students. 

  8. Good thoughts.  Do not Bible baseball a teen (or anyone), as important as learning Scripture really is, rather PROCLAIM to them that Jesus of Nazareth is also God, the God-Man who came to save sinners (as the Nicene Creed states, “For us men (humans) and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit by the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”)

    There seems to be a problem of oscillating back and forth between two extremes and not just calling a thing what it is and using a cross-centered theology (think Andy Root) to deliver the goods to teens.  One side does the Gospel of Sin Management, as Willard critiques, and then the other side seemingly refuses to treat teens (and people) as the sinners they are.  

    What I mean by sinners is not a behavioral thing (“Oh you dirty sinner, you!) but rather the reality of what it means to be brought into a world wrought with brokenness and sin.  People are searching for good news, and we have THE Good News.  Yet the Gospel is more than good news for bad times. Going back to the creed, it’s about God becoming man in order to identify with humanity in every single way and deliver us from sin and death marching us toward the resurrection.

    What teenager doesn’t need resurrection theology?  Teens live life, rather quickly too, and they need the only Hope that can sustain them.  And unlike all the other “hopes” they have, or are given, this Hope is a sure and certain one found in this Jesus of Nazareth.  Give them the goods, don’t cheapen it, and know your audience.  You all know this well, when you’re involved in someone’s life they respond to you. Stay involved and proclaim the Gospel!

    1. I agree that crappy theology is a problem.  The only thing I would wish is that some of these publishing companies would own up to the fact that they have been promoting the sin management thing for a while. The ones who are complaining now, made a boatload of publishing cash from their moralistic lessons for some time, and possibly still sell them. 

  9. Why wait until they’re teens to give them good theology?  Take a look at what is being taught in the children’s ministry in your church. Most children’s curriculum is pretty bad – moralism with crafts and games. 

  10. What a tremendous article! Major league kudos, Adam.

     I think that someone posed an important question: we know what the bad theology is (shallow, performance / behavior-oriented Christianity) but what is the good theology that is really good news? Obviously that is a huge question, but I think some basic definition is important. From my experience, what is missing in the message of youth ministry is the Gospel of grace and the message of the Cross, not just in terms of justification but ESPECIALLY in the space of sanctification.

    The general theology I’ve observed in youth ministry career is that we need Jesus and his grace for salvation, and then we need to be good, just, nice, and loving for God, out of our own performance. (God loves you but you still better be good.) Justification involves Jesus’s performance alone but sanctification involves mostly our performance (moralism) in many (perhaps most) youth ministry contexts. Major Gospel principles, like substitutionary atonement and imputation, rarely are applied in conversations about holiness and love. Simply put, I think we need to lean on the message of the Cross- the depth of our sin and the incredible, infinite height of God’s grace- not just in telling kids about salvation but also as the gamechanger which motivatives sanctification. As Gerhard Forde says, “Sanctification is getting used to our justification.”

    That to me is what defines the bad theology of youth ministry: not incorporating the Gospel of grace in the conversations about sanctification. I think what will change kids and lead them to sustainable, long-term faith is really embracing how deeply and unconditionally God loves them. 

    PS: Sorry to post under my ministries handle. I don’t have a personal Twitter. -Cameron Cole

Leave a Reply