One of the great worries of youth ministry, and of the Church in general, is staying relevant. We have a strong desire to avoid being seen as old fashioned or out of touch because if we are, we’re afraid it will cause us to be moved down on the list of important things in our young people’s lives. How do we avoid this? The temptation is to place the blame on not only what we’re doing, but what message we’re portraying. So we attempt to transform our message so that it sounds as good as possible to those who hear it. As a result, people hear messages about how God’s main goal is for us to be happy, we stop becoming sinners when we are saved, if you believe hard enough you will be wealthy, and He will answer prayers the way you want them to if you have enough faith. Unfortunately, when these adaptations are confronted with the truth of Scripture, it’s easy for the old Adam in us to hold onto popularity instead of God’s Word, and so many do not repent of these teachings and simply convince themselves that this new message is from God and not man made. In fact, this happens so often in the life of the Church that we have come up with a word to describe it: heresy. There’s really no point in sugar-coating it. When we change our message into something different than Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2), then in our efforts to make the church relevant to the world, we have simply become the world.
Given the extreme dangers that can take place in our quest for relevancy, should we swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and refuse to change anything in order to maintain our distinct identity? As tempting as this may sound, the apostle Paul seems to think otherwise: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Evidently my personal favorite styles, preferences and interests may need to be sacrificed sometimes for the sake of others hearing the good news of Christ. There’s no true solution found in this side either.
So how do we “become all things to all people” without losing the Gospel that we hold so dear? There are numerous books, programs and models out there that attempt to answer this question, so I will by no means be able to completely solve this problem in a blog post. But I think the words of 20th century Christian ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr can help get us back on the right track: “The great Christian revolutions come not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when somebody takes radically something that was always there.” Martin Luther did not discover something new in the Scriptures to spark the Reformation. He just radically took God at His Word regarding salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Likewise, we do not need to find the “best new thing” in order to reach those around us. Instead, we return to God’s “living and active” Word (Hebrews 4:12) and let those words define and guide us.
It comes down to not changing our message, but putting it into context. You don’t just jump right into talking about how Jesus died for you without giving them a reason to care about that. You need to start with a problem, something that we deal with in this life, or a conflict that we want resolved. When people are wondering about the solution to that issue or the answer to that question, then they are willing to listen to the solution found in God. We set up a scenario that brings tension, and then find the resolution to that tension in the person and the work of Jesus Christ. The solution doesn’t lie in ourselves, but always in Him. I call this “the Gospel in context” and I think it’s what the church is really about. It’s not just about sharing God’s Word, but sharing it in the context of what other people are going through. God’s Word and His Gospel are simply that powerful and pervasive, impacting everything in our lives.
Just so you don’t get the wrong idea, this is by no means something new that has been recently discovered. This format of putting up a problem or question first and then finding the answer in Christ has actually been used throughout the life of the Church. It’s called Law and Gospel, and it’s not just for preaching, folks. There’s a reason why topical Bible studies on dating, cultural controversies and current events really resonate with young people. Because you’ve made God’s Word relevant to them! Not by changing the message, but by giving a context from which to see the Gospel at work in a practical way.
Our young people don’t need you to change your message depending on their circumstances. They need your message to change the way they look at their circumstances. They don’t need your message to put the pressure back on them to fix it and make things right. They need your message to remind them that it’s not about them, but about Christ. They don’t need to always leave an event feeling happy and inspired. They do need to leave knowing they’re a forgiven child of God (and a side effect of that may in fact involve them feeling happy and inspired).
Are Word and Sacrament “cool” enough for youth group? Are they relevant enough for today’s young people? When put in context, it’s easy to see that they are exactly what we all need. Having trouble dealing with temptation? Instead of simply “trying harder” to fight it, you need the Holy Spirit to change your heart. How does the Holy Spirit come to us? Through Word and Sacrament. Need assurance that you are saved? Remember your Baptism. Need proof that God loves you? It’s written all over Scripture. Need strengthening of faith? Find that in the Lord’s Supper.
Being relevant is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.” There’s nothing more significant regarding our lives, in any scenario, than God meeting us where we are and giving us His gifts. When we change our message in an effort to become relevant, we actually end up losing the significance that we have to bring to this world, and thus become completely irrelevant. Instead, take as radical the fact that God’s Word, both Law and Gospel, significantly and demonstrably impacts every area of our lives and share that message in the context of the lives of those around you. Relevancy isn’t found in a certain format, style or way of “doing church” but in the very Word of God being preached, sung, taught and lived out in a way that shows the complete sufficiency of Christ in our lives.