As a youth pastor, one of the ways that I try to view my role is as a missionary to teenagers. Just as a foreign missionary enters another culture to tell the people there about Jesus, I attempt to share about the Good News of Jesus with teenagers (and their families). If we don’t understand that a large part of our calling is as missionaries, then we’ve missed the big picture of why we work with teenagers in the first place–to see teenagers come to know the Savior of the universe.
For those who would be a missionary to another culture (whether a foreign culture or a subculture within our Western culture), it can be challenging to preach and teach simply the Jesus of the Bible, not the Jesus of our own cultural making. In foreign missions, we would probably like to thing that we (as Westerners) have come a long way since colonialism and “converting the heathen” and making native people act like us as a sign that they had truly accepted Jesus. However, I think we are as prone as ever to assuming that a correct or faithful manifestation of the Church in other cultures would look a lot like how we “do church” in our culture, especially American culture. I have a missionary friend who has shared that in Kenya, some churches do their best to look like “successful” American churches, often acquiring (unnecessary) sound equipment like we have in churches in the United States, trying to be the loudest church on the block.
Passing Along an Unbiblical Representation of Jesus
I believe that there are times when we do the same thing in youth ministry. Trying to share Jesus with teenagers, we sometimes expect that a teenager’s experience in following Jesus will (or should) look exactly the same as our journey with Jesus. The signs of this are quite subtle, but they’re there. Perhaps there are ways of doing youth ministry that impacted us as teenagers, and so we assume that the teenagers we serve need to have exactly the same experience. Or more dangerously, perhaps we have a view of Jesus that has been shaped more by our cultural experience than our study of the Bible, and we teach that view as a part of core doctrine, unwittingly passing along an unbiblical representation of Jesus.
In an instance I’ve seen before in youth ministry (and probably been guilty of), we might teach teenagers to build strong friendships with only other Christian teenagers, because we believe that’s what would be best for them. However, that view runs contrary to what we Jesus do (and model for us) in Matthew 9 when he hangs out with people of ill repute. How many times have we encouraged teenagers to hang out with (for the purpose of showing them that no one’s too far from God to come to know Jesus) the “wrong” kind of people so much that they are accused of being drunks, prostitutes, and maybe even pot heads? That may not sit well with us, but if we were to ask our students to model Jesus in this area of his ministry, that might be what ends up happening.
My God, or the God of the Bible?
Here’s my point: We err when we give teenagers “my” God rather than the God of the Bible. And sometimes, that’s a difficult distinction to make, especially when we’ve been in ministry for a long time, and we feel like we know best what teenagers need. But to be faithful missionaries, we need to point teenagers to Jesus, point them to the cross, and point them to the Bible. Sure, there’s plenty of shepherding to be done, but at the end of the day, our prayer is that they would know Jesus and have the Holy Spirit dwell in them in such a way that God would lead them to the expression of faith that he would want, not that we would want. And that’s a scary thing to have happen, because it very well might result in our students doing things that we’re not too comfortable with, but that are far more closer to what Jesus had in mind than our comfortable, sanitized lives.