The Goals of a Biblical Youth Ministry
Worship, Walk, Work — Teaching the Bible Stories — Learning Foundational Doctrines — Setting a Proper Understanding of Church — Integrating with the Church — Preparing Youth to War on Their Own
Modern Christianity has been influenced so much by American ideals that it’s difficult to separate Biblical values from American values. One such American value is that when you launch into a work, you should be striving for a specific goal. The modern church measures towards these goals and adjusts their programs to attain them, as we discuss in another section. Spoiler alert: they stop following after God and start following after goals.
How then should we approach setting goals for a youth ministry without taking the reins and removing God from the work? By studying a few things about ministry that may be counterintuitive, but will lay the foundational principles around which we can build the youth group.
First principle: the results must be left up to God and should not be influenced by us. Christians grow and mature at their own pace and on their own path, and it is not done on any kind of scale, timer, or according to a preset navigable plan. We learn different things based on where God sees us, what God would have us to do with our lives, and how we respond to him along the way. So the idea of looking for and measuring results must be thrown out the window.
Also, the ministries can be in different stages of the work, and God can use them for different purposes depending on what stage of maturity the ministry or the field is in. Think of the stories of missionaries who spent their lives working in new mission fields, plowing the ground for work that would happen long after they were gone. It might be that you get into a church that is setting up a foundation for work in the coming years and that God will use your family to help support the building of that foundation.
We also must remember that sometimes God uses preachers, churches, and Christians simply to be a light in the darkness, without much happening. A youth group may never have more than a few kids who faithfully attend and learn on their own; it may not see lots of kids getting saved or people being added to the group or the church. Think of all the preachers in the Bible who saw no results, but who simply were being obedient to God, with only a few faithful followers of God standing together.
With this in mind, are there any goals that we should have? Should we simply be content to meet without rhyme or reason? No, God does give us instruction that can guide us as we set our goals. The key is to remember that youth ministry, first and foremost, is ministry. Ministry means “service,” and youth in our churches are simply younger Christians who are growing in faith.
A youth ministry, then, can simply be a service effort from the church that helps young people grow in their faith. If we approach youth ministry as serving young Christians as they mature in the Lord, remembering the methods that God uses to help his Christians grow, and recognizing that growth happens at God’s pace and in God’s time and is different for every young Christian, then we can establish a simple framework of goals for Biblical youth ministry.
Worship, Walk, Work
1 Peter 2:2
2 As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby:
Throughout the New Testament there are passages like the above, telling us that Christians ought to be growing. We ought to grow in faith (Lk. 17:5; 2 Cor. 10:15), love (1 Thes. 3:12; 4:10), knowledge (Col. 1:10), grace (2 Pet. 3:18), and understanding (1 Cor. 14:20), among other things.
Young people can be properly seen as growing Christians. Just like newborns, we don’t require the same things of them that we require of adults. They must first learn to crawl, then walk, then run. A good parallel to this comes from Hebrews 11. We see the steps that a Christian takes with the Lord typified in the order of the “heroes of the faith.” First comes Abel, a picture of a Christian worshipping the Lord. Next comes Enoch, a picture of a Christian walking with the Lord. Then comes Noah, a picture of a Christian working for the Lord.
The activity of a young Christian should start with learning to worship the Lord. They should grow to learn to walk daily with the Lord. Only then can they start to work for the Lord.
Worship: Hearing God’s Voice and Obeying God’s Words
The old-fashioned worship service has been much maligned. The word “worship” has been hijacked by modern youth ministries and turned into a rock concert at the beginning and a self-help motivational talk at the end. Real Biblical worship is obeying the Lord and giving reverence and honor to him, which is done more with our lives than with our mouths.
However, true worship can be done in a Sunday church service. Meeting on Sunday to sing to the Lord, praise him publicly, agree with him during preaching, and be transformed by the renewing of our minds and obedience to his words, should be a sacred activity that fits the definition of worship.
Throughout the Bible, worship has not only been something that we do when we obey God throughout our day, but it’s been a dedicated time when God’s people have gathered publicly to sing, praise the Lord, hear his words read and preached, and sacrifice on the altar.
Worship is perhaps the most important action of the human experience. The human heart is designed to find someone or something to hold in highest esteem. God’s intention from the beginning was to hold that esteemed position in our lives. (Stetzer, 149)
Teens shouldn’t be excluded from these services; they should be a part of them. They should sit close to the front, and they should play with the orchestra, sing with the congregation, shout “amen” with the preaching, and pray at the altar. This weekly worship experience is certainly not an all-inclusive definition of worship, but it shouldn’t be downplayed or marginalized simply because modern churches have turned it into something unscriptural. It’s an important activity in young people’s lives, and it can be a catalyst to help them in their day-to-day worship.
Worship: Meeting with God
38 Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. 40 But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. 41 And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: 42 But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
One Sunday, my pastor preached on this passage of scripture. He talked about how our lives were very busy and our churches were full of all kinds of service, but the most important thing we could do was sit at the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ and listen to him.
At the beginning of the next church service, one of the teens grabbed her Bible and sat on the floor of the church, in front of the first pew, at the feet of the pulpit. This teen wasn’t saying that the preacher was God. She was acknowledging that church was like that living room where Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and heard him speak. Her action was symbolic of the fact that church was, for her, about meeting with the Lord Jesus Christ. She wasn’t there to sit with friends; she was there to meet with her Savior. She sat there every service until she graduated from youth group. Several other teens followed her lead, and now the front of our church is often full of kids mimicking Mary.
How might your teen’s life be different if, instead of coming to church with the intention of meeting other kids, they came with the motive of meeting with God? In the old days when people said they were going to a church revival, they’d say they were going to a meeting. They didn’t mean a church meeting, though; they meant a meeting with God. While it’s true that young people should learn to walk with God every day and all throughout their day, church should be a place dedicated, set apart, for meeting with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Dedicating a full day on Sunday is a great way to do this. It’s a shame that all kinds of other events have crept into our Sundays, from football games to soccer practices to movies after church. Many Christians attend the early service at church so they can make it to the beach before lunch. In doing this, we’ve rushed our special, dedicated time with God and cornered him into a small margin of our lives. Instead of giving him a piece of a morning, give the Lord the full day on Sunday. It can be transformative to your teen’s spiritual life.
Once they are at the youth group, kids should expect to meet with God — not play all kinds of games and be entertained. Youth group time can be set up for them to meet with the Lord. It can include singing good, spiritual hymns with other teens and getting their minds focused on God. If the music is spiritual and not carnal, kids have the opportunity to hear the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit speaking with them.
Kids should be able to give prayer requests, hear about the needs of others, and have time set apart for real prayer to the Lord for those needs. It should be slow and earnest, not a rushed formality, so they have time to stop and talk to the Lord themselves. The Bible should be opened, and kids should read it, follow along, and listen to God’s words being preached to them. They should hear from the Lord through his words.
Another way to do this is for youth groups to encourage kids to participate in revivals, retreats, and camps. We all have so many distractions in our daily lives that it can be difficult to clear away the noise and hear from the Lord. A weekend away from home and the normal distractions of life, engulfed in preaching at a church revival or camp, can be just what kids need to hear the voice of the Lord speaking to them.
Moses went up on the mountain and met with God. Jesus and the disciples met with God on the Mount of Transfiguration. Elijah heard the still, small voice of God on a mountain. There is something special about getting away from the world for an extended time that can help a teen hear God speak to them in a way they will never forget.
Some of the greatest joys in my life have been the great times of revival I’ve seen with our teen group. One teen said, on the way home from a weekend revival, “I feel like I’m in a God bubble that I don’t want to pop.” I’ve seen kids singing to the Lord in church services with tears running down their cheeks, and groups of young people praying together at an altar for a friend who was going through a tough time. These are the kinds of experiences I’ll never forget, and, more importantly, our kids won’t forget them, either.
All of these things can tie together to give young people an opportunity to say that they actually met with the Lord. They heard God speak to them, and they spoke to the Lord in response. Think about the difference it could make in your teen’s life if, each and every week, rather than simply going to yet another place to have fun and meet other teens, they went somewhere that gave them actual time to meet with God.
A regular meeting with the Lord Jesus Christ should be one of the goals of every Biblical youth group.
Walk: Building Their Own Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ
Youth ministries can appear successful from the outside, even without a well-thought-out purpose statement. They can draw large crowds and win the accolades of onlookers and participants alike. But to be authentic ministry, young people must be continuously and intentionally drawn closer to Jesus Christ. (Strommen, 204)
It would be normal for parents to want their kids to build a good relationship with a youth pastor who could act as a kind of mentor for them. There are all kinds of mentorship models of youth work in the world, so it’s easy to think that a youth minister should act this way, too.
The goal for a youth minister, however, is not to build a relationship with teens. The goal instead should be for the teens to build a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. By the time a young person leaves youth group, leaves home, and goes out on their own, they should have their own personal relationship with God. While they are children, they rely on their parents’ guidance, but as they grow up, parents and the church should steadily be taking their hand and placing it in God’s hand.
As the executive editor of Group Magazine, Rick Lawrence had heard every kind of model and program and activity and idea created by the youth ministry world, but he was still dismayed by the poor results churches were seeing from their youth ministries. One day, he realized that many youth ministries were actually distracting teens away from the Lord Jesus Christ. In his book Jesus Centered Youth Ministry, he breathlessly describes the epiphany he had: that the relationships teens build with their youth leaders end up being a crutch or a replacement for the relationship they actually need with God.
Somewhere along the way many of us have decided that relational ministry — often in the form of thriving small groups — is an end, not a means… We can “gain the whole world” by helping kids build great relationships with each other, and “lose our soul” by not running the beeline to Jesus through those great relationships. Not too long ago I asked the youth pastors who read a column I write… to respond to me if they resonated with this “means-instead-of-an-end” problem, and here’s a sampling of their voices:
Well, the first and foremost goal of youth ministry is definitely relationship — but it’s a relationship between our kids and Christ…
We are not running another Boys & Girls Club — we are a church youth ministry… there are many other options out there for developing close relationships with peers and adults… (105–106)
When kids come to youth group, it should be because they want to meet with Jesus Christ, not with their friends and leaders. When they feel compelled to come, it shouldn’t be because a leader coaxed them into coming and they don’t want to let them down. It should be because the Holy Spirit coaxed them into coming, and they don’t want to let him down. They should be compelled to come and learn more about their Savior, and they should experience a closer walk with him as a result of their attending.
The continual ring of the youth group should be that the most important thing in their life is their relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Preaching should be focused on Jesus Christ. Lessons should be focused on their walk with the Lord. A great emphasis should be placed on kids hearing from God through the preaching of his words and by responding to him in prayer and in practical changes in their daily lives.
One way that youth ministries can help kids build their relationships with Christ is by negation, not addition. Instead of adding things to church, they should be stripping away things that don’t relate to their walk with the Lord. Kids who are rebellious toward the Lord and don’t want anything to do with God should walk away from youth meetings saying “that group doesn’t have anything for me to do, all they have is Jesus.” A Biblical youth group should be bare enough that, if you took away the focus on the Lord Jesus Christ, there would be nothing left.
Through this negation, we eliminate the chance for idols to crop up in our churches, distracting people from the Lord. Can we all agree that our youth groups shouldn’t distract our kids from the Lord? We should give kids no chance to be very active in church activities without any interest in the Lord himself. We lessen the possibility of kids who have no relationship with God thinking they are okay because of their involvement in so many church activities.
2 Timothy 1:3–5
3 I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day; 4 Greatly desiring to see thee, being mindful of thy tears, that I may be filled with joy; 5 When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also.
What is left after the clutter has been swept away is preaching, teaching, and exhortation, which urge teens to spend time daily with the Lord in their own lives and to build a relationship with him. Kids can and should have their own walk with the Lord.
I am reminded of the story of Jesus cooking fish for the disciples on the beach after his resurrection. The disciples came to shore with a boatful of fish they had caught, and the Lord was waiting for them on the beach with fish cooking on a fire. This is a great picture of the church and the Christian. When we go to church, we get food served up to us, already cooked, but we also need to be able to fish for our own food throughout the week. Kids should be able to meet weekly with the Lord at church, but they should also be developing their own walk with the Lord daily. The youth group can help with this by constant encouragement to teens in their Bible reading, prayer, and daily walk with God.
Work: Preparing for Church Life
A youth group should help teens grow into mature adult Christians. It is a sad thing that our churches are being filled with adults who don’t understand what church is about, Biblically, after having spent their young lives in youth ministry. They should know how to be a part of church by the time they leave the youth group.
Graduating kids out of youth group who have no idea how to listen to preaching, hear the Holy Spirit, pray for others, give sacrificially, and serve around the church is youth ministry malpractice. I don’t care how much fun they had in their group, if they didn’t learn those things after you brought them to the group week after week, your kids have been robbed. Fire the youth pastor. Throw him in jail for spiritual thievery. Lock him in a room and make him listen to 80’s contemporary Christian songs.
If you see good kids, who love the Lord, leaving the group with no idea how to be adult Christians, the youth ministry is not doing its job. After being in youth group as kids (if they are actively participating), they ought to enter the adult class fully prepared for it.
Spiritual Maturity: Teaching the Bible Stories
If you grew up in church, what you probably remember most from Sunday school are the Bible stories. Maybe you remember a flannel graph with Jonah in the belly of the whale or pictures of Daniel in the lions’ den. The elementary school-aged classes are a great place for kids to start learning these stories. Young kids’ faces light up when you tell them a story, and they will remember them well.
Knowing these Bible stories is much more important to our development as Christians than you might think. When we become adults and listen to the Bible being preached week after week, the Holy Spirit uses our knowledge of these Bible stories to make connections in our mind as the preacher delivers the sermon. Maybe one day you will be listening to a sermon about grace, in which the preacher is telling how the Lord Jesus Christ came down to our sinful world and scooped us up and made us sit in heavenly places with him. As he exposits his passage in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit might remind you of the story of David and Mephibosheth that you learned as a child. God gives you a clear example of grace, you picture yourself as Mephibosheth, and the Lord as David. Instead of just thinking about being a sinner, you imagine yourself living in the slum of Lodebar, crippled and unable to walk on your own. It is a vivid example of grace, which helps relate an abstract idea in a concrete way. God uses these stories as examples for us.
1 Corinthians 10:11
11 Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.
2 Peter 2:6
6 And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly;
Fred Craddock, in Craddock on the Craft of Preaching, talks about a sermon being a twice-told tale. You hear a sermon, and it reminds you of something you already know and builds on it or shows you a new angle on it. You reach a new depth. But you must have heard it the first time to get this effect. You need to know the stories and the people and the doctrine in order to get the full effect of the second telling. A youth ministry has the huge job of laying this foundation in the mind of the young hearer, so when they grow up, enter the church, and hear the sermon, they get the benefit of hearing it with the background already in place.
I see this happen sometimes immediately on a small scale. Every once in a while I’ll teach on a subject; then the preacher will preach all around that subject in church following the teen class. I’ll have told them, for example, the story and history of the life of Christ, and we’ll talk about the significance of Samaria and the Samaritans relationship with the Jews. Then the preacher will preach on the story of the Good Samaritan. Think of the depth the teens can understand about that sermon now, after knowing the history of the Jews’ dealings with the Samaritans! It becomes deeper and richer and roots them further in their walk with God.
A good youth ministry, then, is one where, when the teens leave and graduate into the adult class, they will experience the stories for the second time, not the first. The second telling is better than the first.
Spiritual Maturity: Learning Foundational Doctrines
Beyond Bible stories, a good youth ministry can lay a doctrinal foundation of the fundamentals. By the time kids graduate from the teen class into the adult class, they should have a solid grasp of the basics. Teens should be learning real Bible doctrine, such as:
• Biblical Inerrancy and Inspiration
• The Fall of Man
• The Nature and Attributes of God
• Repentance and Forgiveness
• Fact, Faith & Feeling
• Justification, Regeneration, Adoption, and Sanctification
• Law & Grace
• The Judgments, Rewards, Heaven, and Hell
• The Existence of God
• The Virgin Birth & Deity of Christ
• The Character of Christ
• Old and New Testament Survey and Dispensationalism
• The Death & Resurrection of Christ
• The Trinity and the Work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
They should have a good grasp of these doctrines and much more.
When a teen goes to college, they first take prerequisite courses. They must understand basic biology before moving on to pre-med classes. They should know algebra before diving into engineering courses. In church, a good understanding of the foundational doctrines will help them better understand adult classes and church.
Youth ministry is often not about what it can accomplish in the life of teens today, but what kind of foundation it’s laying for the future.
Spiritual Maturity: Understanding what Church is, and isn’t!
6 Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
We’re teaching kids about God and church. If we train them to attend church for games and entertainment and socialization, then they will seek a church as adults that emphasizes fun, entertainment, and social times. Why would we train up our kids to attend concert-like events in youth group, when church is nothing like that? No wonder kids are leaving church. They don’t recognize it and aren’t trained for it.
This is the reason churches are actually becoming more concert-like. The youth that grew up attending Christian rock shows instead of Sunday school have become adults and are now leading churches. They are demanding what they grew up with. They are old now, and they are not departing from how they were trained. Why would we expect anything else? This is exactly what the Bible said would happen.
With this in mind, our youth groups should be a reflection of church (without being separate churches from the church itself). They should be a younger-oriented version of the same thing they’ll be doing when they are older. They should sit through Bible preaching. They should listen to good, verse-by-verse Bible teaching. They should be encouraged to study, to pray, and to build their relationship with God. They should attend prayer meetings and street preaching and should help teachers with the younger kids. They should volunteer and be taught how to give, sing, worship, and witness.
Most of all, young people should attend regular church services whenever the doors are open and learn what it is like to be part of the local church. It is God’s plan to raise Christians by means of local churches, so young Christians should simply be an active part in this — so it is natural for them. In this way, we train them up in the way they should go. Ask yourself: “What would I desire for my kids to do in their Christian lives as adults?” Whatever your answer is, that’s what you should have them do now, at the level they are capable of understanding.
Spiritual Maturity: Integrating with the Church
One of the reasons teens struggle leaving youth groups and staying in churches is because churches have made it such a jarring transition. Modern youth ministries are building churches within churches. Kids have their own worship services and their own fellowships; they don’t participate in much of the happenings in the church, and many of them simply don’t even attend the church outside of youth group.
I recently had a conversation with a youth worker at a fairly new and modern ministry. The church was expressing disappointment with the youth group, because they had over thirty kids in their Wednesday night youth program but almost none for the Sunday morning church service. This youth worker told me how they recently held a youth event on a Saturday with almost fifty teens, and they were excited to see how many would come on Sunday. The pastor got into the pulpit that Sunday morning and told everyone about the great turnout at the youth event. Then the pastor asked all the kids to raise their hands if they had attended the day before. Only one teen raised her hand.
You can see how disheartening this must be for the pastor and youth worker in that church. But if you think about this from the teens’ perspective, it makes sense. They never wanted to come to church. They were invited to, and attended, a youth activity. Sure, they got invited to church by the adults who were at the activity, but they had conversations with other kids in the group who told them all about the Wednesday evening youth group. This was the place to be, not the Sunday morning service. From the teens’ standpoint, Wednesday was for them, and Sunday was for the adults.
How can we fix this? What is the biblical model for getting youth group kids to attend church? The simple answer is: there can be no model for that. Separating them into their own mini-church is the wrong place to start. You can’t get to church attendance from the starting place of separate youth groups. They must be integrated from the start.
How do we integrate them? The Bible doesn’t give us explicit instruction, but it does give us some guideposts that may help us establish principles to follow.
Think about the young people God tells us about in his words. King David was still a young man when he was writing psalms and following after God’s heart. Jesus used the lunch of a young lad to feed the five thousand. The boy had simply been there while Jesus was preaching. In Deuteronomy 6, the parents are teaching their kids about God in everyday life, when they wake up and when they go to sleep, when they eat meals and when they go about their daily work. When they went to do the sacrifices in 1 Samuel 1:4, the kids were present and sacrificing with them. Young men are even there when Ananias and Sapphira are killed in Acts 5, and are called upon to wrap them up and carry them away. That last one, I might add, is my personal favorite to quote when I call upon the teen boys to take out the trash at church fellowships.
What are the common themes in the instances above? I would posit that there is nothing special or unusual going on here. What is said of the kids could be — and in other places is — said of the adults. They are simply part of the worship of God in the same way adults are part of it. With that in mind, we should strive to make the young people in church a regular and normal part of the church.
Does your church have preaching services? Kids should be there. Do you have a nursing home ministry? Kids should attend. Teens should be singing on the platform for special music; they should be called on to pray every once in a while. The preacher should address them regularly in sermons, just as he makes special addresses to men, or to women, or to older folks. Does your church have Sunday school? Kids should have Sunday school as well.
Sunday school brings up a question and a special point. Sunday school in most churches is a place where Bible doctrines are taught. It’s a time to dig into the Bible and “study to shew thyself approved unto God.” Should the kids be in the same class as adults, because we are integrating them into the life of the church? Well, they certainly could be, without harm, if the church is small and doesn’t have adequate facilities or teachers.
If the church is able, there is nothing wrong with separating them into age groups so they can be systematically taught Bible stories and doctrines as they grow. But this isn’t done as a separation from the rest of the church. They would simply naturally move from class to class, and as they graduate high school, would move into the adult class.
Malan Nel puts it succinctly in his chapter in Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church.
Youth ministry is not a separate or different ministry. It does, however, take into account that which is typical of a specific ministry and what is typical of a specific age group at whom the ministry is directed. For example, in youth ministry, preaching is still preaching, but it is focused on and directed at the youths. The focus is determined by the youth’s phase of life and the needs peculiar to that phase. (Black, 9)
Youth ministries must, then, look for opportunities to fold teens into the regular life of the church, while making sure the participation is on a level that is appropriate for them. They can help set up fellowships and take out trash. They can sing in the choir, help an adult run the sound board, or chase down toddlers in the nursery. And they can sit in the front row of the church and listen to and take notes on the same sermon that the adults hear.
More deeply, they are part of the life and partakers of the spirit of the church. When there is a sick member and the pastor calls for a special time of prayer, the kids should be there to be a part of it. When we take the Lord’s Supper, the kids should partake at the table with the adults. When there is a special offering for a missionary or service need, the kids should be there, understand the need, and give their own money.
Does this mean we don’t need youth ministry at all? No, it is helpful to have youth workers who can recognize the need and facilitate the kids participating in church. Instead of creating separate mini-churches that drive wedges between kids and the church, youth ministers should be connectors who are always looking for chances to get kids active in the life of the church.
Andrew Root, author of Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, says it well when he sums up Bonhoeffer’s view of youth ministry.
Bonhoeffer believes that we should continue to do youth ministry. But we should do it by undercutting youth ministry as a privileged space. We should do youth ministry as way of moving the young into the center of the church community. (Root, Web)
Spiritual Maturity: Preparing Youth to Battle on Their Own
We’ve seen it time and time again. A young person is active in their youth group and seems to really enjoy going to church. They have their troubles throughout high school, but for the most part they seem to be decent kids. Then they go off to college, move out of their parents’ house, meet a boyfriend or girlfriend, and their faith starts to wilt away.
What is happening here? The truth is, leaving home and going off to college is a big spiritual battle, and many times the young person has not developed a faith that is strong enough to fight that warfare on their own.
The Christian life is compared to several things in scripture, and one of the most prominent comparisons is to a soldier.
2 Timothy 2:3–4
3 Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. 4 No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.
1 Timothy 1:18
18 This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare;
2 Corinthians 10:3–4
3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: 4 (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)
11 Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. 13 Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
1 Timothy 6:12
12 Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.
Christian warfare is said to be spiritual (Eph. 6:12), personal (Lk. 22:31–32), strenuous (Heb. 12:4), and continual (Eph. 6:1). Believers are told to fight with courage (1 Cor. 16:13), with determination (1 Ti. 6:12), with watchfulness (1 Pet. 5:8), with prayer (Eph. 6:18), standing in God’s strength, using the armor of God (Eph. 6:11; Ro. 13:12–14; 2 Cor. 10:4; Eph 6:13–17 (Manser, Article 8485).
Our old hymns are full of analogies to the Christian life being that of a soldier in a battle.
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!
Fierce may be the conflict, strong may be the foe,
But the King’s own army none can overthrow;
‘Round His standard ranging, victory is secure,
For His truth unchanging makes the triumph sure.
Joyfully enlisting, by Thy grace divine,
We are on the Lord’s side — Saviour, we are Thine!
A search on nethymnal.com for the word “soldier” returns over 100 hymns along that theme, including: “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?”; “The Fight Is On”; “Keep on the Firing Line”; “Marching On”; “Soldiers of Christ, Arise!”; “Sound the Battle Cry”; and “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus, Ye Soldiers of the Cross.”
The modern church has a noticeable dearth of songs about Christian warfare. When I asked one worship leader with a good understanding of the landscape of contemporary music how much the theme of Christian warfare is represented in modern music, he simply replied, “none.” Warren Wiersbe recognized this in his book Be Strong.
An author takes a risk writing a book about war at a time in history when war in general, and “religious wars” in particular, are detested, and when some Christian denominations are removing the “militant” songs from the church hymnal.
But I’ll take that risk, because I think the church needs the message of the Book of Joshua more than ever before. We’re living in a day of reproach and defeat, and the church is no longer “clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners” (Song 6:10). We look more like a bunch of prisoners of war.
Whether we like it or not, God’s people are expected to be soldiers. (Wiersbe, Introduction)
Why all this talk of soldiers and warfare? Is this just some kind of macho, Bible-thumping talk from wannabe war heroes? No, rather, when we look at all the verses above, combined with the statistics of all the kids who drop out of church when they leave home, added to the knowledge that leaving home, going to college, and possibly even moving to a new city are immeasurably huge spiritual pressures, we have to raise the bar on how seriously we take our youth ministry training.
We must stop thinking of youth group as a fun activity center and realize that one of its responsibilities is to train up soldiers to enter spiritual battle. What does this look like, Biblically?
First, kids must become familiar with the weapons God has given them. These weapons are not carnal, according to 2 Corinthians 10:4, but spiritual. They are laid out in Ephesians 6 as the “whole armor of God.” The Christian soldier is commanded to put on the whole armor of God so he can stand against the wiles of the devil. If our young people don’t have the armor on, they’ll surely be killed, spiritually. The armor is listed as salvation, righteousness, faith, the gospel, the Bible, and prayer. Simply put, kids should be sure of their salvation, live pure lives and have pure hearts, be strong and growing in faith, not be ashamed to witness, understand and know their Bible, and have a strong prayer life. Kids who leave a youth group having been thoroughly trained in these things and grasping them in their own lives have a much better chance of withstanding the battle.
They get to know these weapons by being trained in them and by using them. They need regular preaching and teaching on these subjects. They need to be challenged and led to use them in their own daily lives, so they can better understand them and so they can become a part of who they are. They should know these weapons well, and any group that allows a teen to go through it for several years but is not teaching, preaching, modeling, and challenging them in the use of these weapons is failing them. They are sending soldiers into battle unequipped.
Second, they must know their enemy. Modern churches and youth groups are improperly teaching kids that the world is their friend. They are bringing in secular music and secular entertainments, and there is no dividing line between the world and the Christian.
A Biblical youth group must teach young people that they have enemies out there who are bent on tearing them apart. The song asks, “is this vile world a friend of grace, to lead us on to God?” The Bible clearly says we fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil. The Bible says the enemy is invisible at times. It says you can’t beat the enemy in your own strength. And it says you have a commander (the Lord) who can beat him for you (Ruckman, 41). These enemies must be preached against, warned against, taught about, and made plain to the kids. We are not ignorant of the devil’s devices (2 Corinthians 2:11), and our teens should not be ignorant either.
Third, they must know their objectives. God hasn’t told us to build big churches, or to become nice citizens, or to end world hunger. God has told us to stand, to run, to finish our course, and to keep the faith, among many other things. There are many voices in the Christian world who will pull our teens toward their own unbiblical objectives. We must teach teens what Biblical objectives are, how to find them in the Bible, and how to discern God’s will for their own lives.
It’s one of the greatest tricks of the devil to attack young people at pivotal moments in their lives. Think about it: kids are being attacked the most and pulled from church when they leave home and go to college. This is the point in their lives when they will most likely:
A) choose their career,
B) find their spouse, and
C) decide where to live.
If the devil can grab hold of them at this time, he can throw off some of the most important factors in living out God’s will for them. In other words, it will be very difficult for a young adult to fulfill God’s perfect will for their life if they have chosen the wrong profession, married the wrong person, and are living in the wrong place. How many Christians come back to church in their late twenties or early thirties and struggle to do God’s will or stay close to God because they are fighting in a career, place, and marriage that God did not intend for them?
Training to be a Christian soldier doesn’t mean we should be teaching our kids to be mean, or to bully, or to fight in the flesh. They can be kind; they can love their neighbor and be great citizens. Indeed, the best citizen is a good Christian wholly following the Lord Jesus Christ. But they must be sober-minded enough to know that the world is not a friend to their spiritual life. They have an adversary who “walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5:8). A good youth group will graduate soldiers who are well-equipped to fight spiritual battles.
Excerpt from Playing Games with God: How to Avoid Shallow Youth Ministries and Find a Biblical Group for Your Kids. Print version is available here.
Copyright © Sam Magdalein 2016.