When you think about youth ministry, what comes to mind? Is it the youth group made up of friends from church? Is it roller skating, hay rides, and ice skating? Pool parties, retreats, gatherings? Service opportunities? Sunday school?

Or, was the first thing you thought of Jesus Christ? Maybe it goes without saying, but, shouldn’t youth ministry be about the relationship Jesus has with His teenage followers? And shouldn’t our role as youth workers be to nurture that relationship, embodied in our own relationship with Christ and our teens? In our love for our teens, we become the personification of Christ’s love for His people. Andrew Root calls it “place-sharing” in his outstanding book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation. “Relational ministry is about helping adolescents be authentic human beings as determined by the incarnate, human Christ.”

Groups are everywhere. There are lots of things teens can join and hang out with their friends. Sports teams, high school clubs, community groups. You can go roller skating or bowling without being a member of a youth group. Service? Again, opportunities abound. Someone noted that service learning is now incorporated into nearly every high school curriculum. It is, they noted, the last virtue that can be taught in the public schools.

So, what makes Youth Ministry special, something different from the rest of a teen’s activities? It’s Jesus.

Christian youth ministry only makes sense when it is centered in the person of Jesus Christ. Within the context of our Spirit-given faith, Jesus is right in the middle of our whole life, first as God and Savior, then as friend, encourager, shepherd, and brother. Through Christ, our sins are forgiven. Through Christ, we are eternally blessed. Christ guides our life, encourages us through tough times, celebrates with us in good times. Jesus is the catalyst who gathers His people, in this case, young people, together. As a youth group, we celebrate with each other, encourage each other, befriend each other–because of and guided by our relationship with Christ. It shouldn’t be unusual to ask the question “Why do you go to youth group” and have someone say, “Because Jesus is there.”

Faith in Christ is a free gift of God, given through the power of the Holy Spirit in baptism when the faith is sealed in us through God’s Word and in the water of baptism. But that’s just the beginning. Faith is nurtured through the Word which brings Bible study into the youth ministry mix. Opportunity is provided for teens to read the Word, study, mark, learn, and even struggle with what God has to say to His people–how forgiveness is ours, what insight He has given for living our lives, what promises He makes, and the hope He gives to His people–even young people. Youth ministry gathers teens and young adults around the Word. They study together, pray together, sometimes struggle together, and worship together. Faith that began around the sacrament of baptism is encouraged and nurtured in the sacramental celebration of the Lord’s Supper where His teens are reminded of the forgiveness of their sins and the reality that they are a part of God’s family. They are never alone.

In Christ, the youth community understands and gives thanks that they are a part of the whole church community. They are a part of congregational life and not apart from it. Christ is the center of the life of the whole congregation. Young people together with all the congregation gather around the cross.

Unless Christ is the center, there is no youth ministry. There is only something else to do, another activity or event for the calendar. With Christ in the middle of everything there is hope, encouragement, support, celebration, and future. We focus everything we do on Christ. “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And, with that reality, everything we do in life, including youth ministry, begins.

Published June 2011