Jesus First, Everything Else Second

Occasionally, I’ll be contacted by a parent or someone else in our church who is concerned that we are “losing our teenagers” because of the prevalence of evolution being taught in public schools, the passage of some same-sex marriage act in another state, or some other “hot button” secondary issue they are worried about. Usually, I’m asked about what our youth group is doing to keep students on track. In the past, I didn’t have a really good answer, probably because I was more intimidated about the issue (and the person talking to me) than anything else. Now, my response is usually simple: We’ll continue to make much of Jesus, because Jesus is in the business of transforming lives, not to mention changing hearts and minds.

There are some secondary issues that youth workers should include in their teaching rotation. However, it’s easy to feel like we have to address so many of those issues that Jesus gets pushed to the margin in our teaching times and in small groups. The unintentional (or perhaps intentional, in some cases) result is that we communicate to teenagers it’s more important to know what the Bible says about homosexuality, popular music, and other “hot button” issues than it is to know Jesus.

Understand me clearly: Helping teenagers embrace a Christ-centered, biblical worldview is important. Part of maturing in our relationship with Jesus is learning to take God’s lead as we navigate through some of the “hot-button” issues of our day.

But when you talk about those secondary issues more than you talk about Jesus, you’re missing the point.

Here’s why you shouldn’t make a bigger deal about secondary issues than you do about Jesus:

Students who don’t know Jesus don’t care about your secondary issues. Really. And if you do decide to harp on those issues, you’ll either just 1) Tell them something they already agree with or 2) Anger them to the point they never want to come back. Stick with Jesus, and you’ll tell them something that might actually transform their life.

Majoring on secondary issues creates followers of YOU rather than followers of Jesus. If you give our favorite secondary issues more airtime than Jesus, eventually you’ll just have a group of teenagers who agree with you.

Following Jesus isn’t about having all the right opinions. Following Jesus is about…following Jesus. I’ve followed Jesus now for fourteen years, and there have been certain opinions I’ve held that I had to change my mind about because I grew in my understanding of the Bible. I’m sure there are things I believe now about Jesus, our world, and the Bible that I will eventually realize is incorrect. And I’m absolutely sure that I’ve voted for at least one candidate that perhaps I shouldn’t have. But those things don’t make me any less a follower of Jesus.

You don’t have to believe the whole Bible to be saved by Jesus. Seriously. Does following Jesus mean that eventually we will learn how to think through cultural issues with the Bible as our guide? Absolutely. But there’s nothing in the Bible that says if you have to believe the whole thing before you’re allowed to follow Jesus. Even Jesus’ first followers didn’t always believe the right things about him. We need to stop making it seem to teenagers that they can’t follow Jesus if they don’t agree 100% with everything they hear in our messages.

Majoring on secondary issues communicates to teenagers that they have to fit in at your church to be accepted. When you freak out at a student who doesn’t share your opinion about homosexuality, drug use, or the origins of our universe, the message you send is, “You have to agree with us to belong here.” Those conversations have a place, but make sure you allow students the room to disagree. You might find that they are more open to hearing you talk about Jesus when you don’t judge them for their views on other topics.

Majoring on secondary issues makes church about Us-Versus-Them. When we make a huge deal out of secondary issues, we communicate (sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not) that “we” are on the right side of the issues, and “they” are on the wrong side. When this happens, Jesus gets lost in the mix, and teenagers lose.

Students will stop inviting their friends. When you make it feel like anyone who doesn’t agree with your secondary issues isn’t welcome, students will stop inviting their friends because they’re worried about how their friends who don’t hold the same views as your church will be treated.

What do you think? Should secondary and “hot button” issues receive more or less airplay in youth ministry?

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