A Youth Ministry of Sinners or Saints?

Recently I was speaking at an evangelical youth camp where many of the participants were active Christians.  Some of the young people were well versed in scripture being able to quote various sections by chapter and verse if needed.  One element that struck me was that many kept articulating that we are all sinners.  Whilst I might agree with them on theological grounds, in my experience it is not common for young people to talk like this; many young people don’t understand the language of sin.

It seems that many evangelical styles of youth ministry have been focusing in on young people being sinners in need of a saviour.  I think most of us will agree theologically that we are all sinners even if we are hard or soft on the exact language we use.  The issue is not theological but cultural; is the “we are all sinners” argument an out of date cultural image for young people?  Are the young people and youth leaders in our churches using that language because they understand it or do they just adopt it because that is the language of their church?

Recently I heard two speakers mention that many young people today already have a low opinion of themselves, that they know they have many flaws they don’t need the church to remind them of that.  they suggested that young people seek connection in the peer group because it helps them blend in and cover up their flaws.  So is the church preaching a message that is that different to the rest of the world?  Perhaps we aren’t if we only give young people confirmation that they are flawed.  We need to separate our message out from the self-help industry which articulates our flaws but if you buy this new book it will rescue you from yourself.

As Christian we preach that Jesus is the saviour of our flaws and weakness.  We should be a little different to the dominate culture which teaches that with our own hard work we will be better.  Perhaps youth ministry needs to teach young people the language of being saints.  In Christ we are a new creation, no longer our old selves but saints.  

Galatians 2:20 reminds us: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” In the power of the Holy Spirit, young people are not weak sinners but powerful witnesses to the Resurrection.

When I was young, in the 1990’s, our youth group heard a talk by our church leader inspiring us to be Saints of the new Millennium.  We were reminded that we called by God to be a generation that made a difference in the world.  Back in the 1990 the young people were told by business to get a good job and earn you way to the top; top young people are told they can achieve anything they want to.  So perhaps this current generation knows they can make a difference in the world but do they realise that God called them to do this?  Perhaps this generation of young people in our youth ministries need to hear that they are called by God to be saints, set apart for the work of God.

Perhaps in youth ministry we need not just the sinner language or saint language but both.  We are a new creation in Christ, saved from our sins in order to be the saints who help build the kingdom of God.

Please leave a comment.

markoffaith, MarkofFaith, mrmarkmcdonald, markoffaith.net


9 thoughts on “A Youth Ministry of Sinners or Saints?

  1. Adrian says:

    Are people being “saved from…” or “saved for…”? I tend to come down in the both/and camp and think that it can be freeing for people to recognize that they are both saints and sinners. I worry that to emphasize just one side could to a distortion of the Christian message. But I take your point. If people are leaning exclusively towards either extreme a prophetic Christian voice is needed to challenge them back to the truth.

  2. Matthew Del Nevo says:

    This stress on sin is an old fashioned basically Protestant characteristic because it goes along with that idea of redemption often pictured at the front of Protestant translations of the bible into English, God being after all, an English word, not HaShem. This diagram has God on one hand, sinners on the other and a big gap between that cannot be bridged, but by “the only son” of God. Redemption is understood transactionally (as well as totally literally), and hence, historically, the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (even God’s a banker in this estimate, and in America, the only foundationally Protestant nation, lo and behold, money is God!). What you need to do is bring a much more Jewish/Judaic understanding to this Greek/German/American psuedo-metaphysical one in that diagram. I recall those words of Rilke from 1910: “is it possible, they still talk about God as if it is something they had in common? like a couple of schoolkids with new penknifes…” We all only have partial self-knowledge, so we do not know ourselves, how then do we know others not knowing ourselves? Who then knows what “man” means? We can’t say definitively, but if we don’t know exactly what man is, if we are fundamentally incomprehensible ( the teaching of the Church Fathers), how can we pretend we know what God is? A divine “person” is a metaphor. Revelation is a metaphor as is that which is revealed when spoken in human language, it is not exact knowledge of anything, even given that the only exact knowledge we have about anything anyway is only within certain paradigms and parameters, it is not exact as such. People who are sure, who think faith is belief and belief means positive assertional sureness, i.e. a bad attitude, are positivists of the spirit. The Holy Spirit is not a positivism, hence “holy”. These “sinners” you mention don’t know themselves. Not knowing themselves, how can they know Creation, Revelation, Redemption with their manifold symbolic aspects… people who couldn’t tell a symbol from an allegory and couldn’t tell you what either have to do with religion… Young people are on the surface of life and thought, they need to go deeper into culture and meaning and truth. The holy spirit will take them if they trust in God, which means not-knowing, that is what faith is, and is an act of not knowing that carries them into action, not a belief, certainly not believing in that stupid diagram at the front of the Bible… who could that be for I have often wondered? And that silly little prayer that if you pray you are “saved.” When Christianity gets this shallow (and it is a shallow age we live in) it is as if God is mocked.

  3. Matthew Del Nevo says:

    This is Zizek in an interview about his book God in Pain. This is the sort of thing I would play to youth (high school or above) who believe in the diagram at the front of the Bible type Christianity. The first 20 minutes. From 11 mins it takes off. From 16.30 mins it becomes important what he is saying to about 19 mins. Zizek’s interpretation is backed up here: http://www.torahresource.com/EnglishArticles/YeshuaIntercessionALL.pdf
    This is from torah resource that Rob Bell told me he used as an aid to help his preaching/teaching. There are a lot of good articles there regarding a proper perspective rather than the pagan/American transactional God one. (If the transaction were literally true, not a metaphorical picture God would not be God but would be bowing to a justice higher than himself), If God if God Jesus doesn’t have to die on the cross for the forgiveness of sins in the transactional sense, because God can forgive people because he’s God, and he already did we know from the Tanach… anyway, no point me carrying on…. I’ll leave it with you. Matthew

  4. Jimmy Young (@ragingzephyr) says:

    Hey Mark,

    Great questions.

    I’ve been wrestling with a similar question recently, after reading Andrew Root’s “A Theological Journey through Youth Ministry”. Essentially, his point is that justification must be linked with revelation to make sense. If we tell them that Jesus came to take their sins, without telling them how the Cross reveals who God is, it just becomes ‘cheap grace’. Be interested to see what you think,

    I’ve attached the relevant paragraphs below

    “In youth ministry we tend to see the cross as about justification. Jesus takes our sins to the cross, so that we might be forgiven and put into right relationship with God. This focus on justification has led us to practices like having kids write their sins on index cards and then nail them to a wooden cross or burn them, or pouring bleach into glasses of dirty water, turning the water clear. These serve as object lessons of what happens on the cross, of how the cross justifies us by Jesus taking our sins. But these lessons focus only on simple justification, and by that I mean they focus on forgiveness of sin without contemplating how justification itself is bound to another key doctrine.

    Such illustrations seem to ignore the doctrine of revelation, which concerns how and where God makes Godself known in our world. We tell young people all the time that their sins have been forgiven, and they often wonder why this matters— they didn’t feel like they needed to be forgiven.

    Witnessing their apathy, we ramp up the persuasion about the need for forgiveness, dirtying the water by convincing them how bad and corrupt they are. But it doesn’t connect because we fail to stress the essential link between justification and revelation. When we don’t talk enough about how the cross reveals who God is and where and how God acts, it becomes a masochistic incident that in some abstract way forgives kids for all the bad things they’ve done (or, more positively, illustrates for them the importance of doing hard things).

    Justification and revelation cannot be separated or we give Kari and other kids what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”— forgiveness of sin without the transforming presence of God”.

    • Mark McDonald says:

      Thanks for the comment Jimmy. I love the last line “forgiveness of sin without the transforming presence of God”. We have to help young people to be aware of revelation, that God is revealing himself to young people, not just taking away their sins and staying distant. God is seeking an intimate relationship with young people to make them the saints of the church. This is not an easy task, perhaps it is easier to get young people to nail paper to a cross. But in youth ministry we can’t avoid things because they are hard or messy. Recently I read that the best youth ministries are those that allow for questions; they don’t seek to provide only black and white answers. When I was training we used to call it catechesis and our lecturer said “real catechesis is exploring the questions young people have, not giving them answers to questions we think they should ask”.

      Keep up the good work and let us know any tips you find for deepening an understanding of revelation.

      • Mark McDonald says:

        We have to share the unchanging biblical truth but it doesn’t always start there. Sometimes we need to ask questions to understand the perspective of young people before sharing the gospel. If we understand where a young person is then we may be able to share the gospel with them in a way that taps into their heart felt need. Most young people who say they don’t believe in God really do, they just don’t understand this “Spirit” that they know must be out there.

        In the past I have always aimed to move a young person a step closer to Christ. If we know where they are beginning then we can better advance them towards Christ. However I also recognise that sometimes young people ask questions we don’t have an answer for so we are are afraid to let them ask. It is in times like these that we must trust the gospel to speak to people even if we ourselves are unsure.

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